Maintenance Training for the Backcountry Athlete

You are a backcountry hunter or mountain athlete. You spent the whole summer building and honing your fitness. Maybe you participated in our Fit for the Field (FftF) online conditioning course. Regardless, you’re into your peak season and you need to switch your workout system into a maintenance routine.

Easy peasy I say. If you were a participant in FftF, you are now an expert in balancing strength, speed, power, agility, and endurance for your specific needs. And the program gives you some specific input on how to adjust your resistance, interval, mobility, stability, and aerobic work to stay in great shape for months on end. But if you missed this year’s course and aren’t jumping in until next year, I’ve got your back.

Maintaining good backcountry fitness, once you’ve developed it, requires a few simple applications. At TLA, we use our proprietary Athletic Capacity Rating System (ACRS) in all our program design. Based on the ACRS, the backcountry hunter needs a 2-1-2-1-3 rating in strength-speed-power-agility-endurance to be most effective. Our science-backed approach recognizes that strength and power, once optimized, can be preserved in your organism with relatively brief, intense, infrequent sessions. Aerobic conditioning takes a little more dedication to keep it from dropping off. And just a sprinkling of speed and agility, mixed into some microworkouts…will keep you tuned for the backcountry.

Here’s how we do it. Let’s assume you are in peak season and getting in some hikes and hunts, perhaps on weekends, a couple times per month. Many of those trips count as big workouts even though they are much more than just training. It’s essential to recover adequately between outings. Then you intersperse a few sessions to keep your inner beast in a “ready-to-go” or beastly state. Maintenance training involves doing just enough of the right stuff, and having the confidence to resist trying to do “everything all the time” and end up overtraining and under-recovering during peak season. It’s true in every sport and this is what keeps coaches and conditioning professionals like me employed. 

There are 2 key workouts for the backcountry athlete. Depending on what happens in any given week, you’ll need to hit 1-2 sessions of each in a 7-day period. I’ll list out these routines and describe them. You’ll probably be surprised they are so simple.

The first session is a basic aerobic conditioning workout. We need about an hour of Zone 2 cardio training. In a classic 5-zone model, Z2 is that endurance gear or output during which you can pass the “talk test” (carry on a limited conversation without breathlessness). In pre-season mode, we used a lot of loaded backpack training or rucking. If that works well for you, just throw on your pack and head out for a brisk walk or short hike. As you get more fit, you’ll sometimes notice it’s hard to stay in Zone 2 while walking on flat ground. That’s OK. Even if your heart rate is a little lower, you’re still training. Also, it’s totally fine if your output fluctuates a little as the terrain undulates. You don’t have to peg this as perfect steady-state work (or play). Close enough is good enough. 

However, if you are getting out several times per month with your pack on your back, you may wish to perform this session in an alternative mode, such as cycling, rowing, elliptical, or swimming. This can give your mind and body a much-needed injection of variety, but keep in mind that doing any of these forms of training for an hour probably requires that you have been using them at least on a somewhat regular basis in order to avoid an overuse injury. 

One hour is a real sweet spot for this type of training. It’s long enough to provide a great cardiorespiratory and muscular fatigue resistance stimulus, while still being approachable in terms of time availability and daily energy considerations. Just like effort could be relatively general around Zone 2, so can the duration of this session. 56:48 or 1:03:27 is fine.

If you are only 5-7 days between trips, one of these sessions is enough for maintenance. A longer interval between outings might see you feeling like and doing 2 of these every week. Use your judgment and monitor your state of readiness or appetite for training. You are not trying to smash key performance indicators (KPI’s) right now. Just keep your aerobic base from deteriorating.

The second maintenance training session for the backcountry athlete is a fun gym-based workout with a duration of about 45 minutes. Frequency is 1-2x/wk. Since we checked off the endurance requirement (for the most part) in the previous workout, now we need to address strength, speed, power, and agility. Honestly, there are many, many ways in which we can stimulate these capacities. This workout is just one simple suggestion. I’ll put this one in table format and then break it down.

Gym-based Maintenance Workout for the Backcountry Athlete


:30 each

Jumping Jacks
Trunk Twists
Side Bends
Skater Bounds
Every minute on the minute
10 reps each exercise
6 rounds each exercise

Sandbag Thruster
Sandbag Clean/High Pull
Dumbbell Walking Lunge
Transverse Cable Row
Jump Rope
3 x 1:00
1:00 rests

Bike Spin

Free Choice
Concentrate on
good technique.
This session will delight and excite you!

Preparatory: The prep or warmup section is quick and dirty. No fluff. Just basic old-school calisthenics. You’ll need minimal rest between segments, so this should only take about 4 minutes to complete. It will get you feeling activated and ready for the main lifts of the workout. We are not only waking up the body, we are doing just enough multidirectional work to preserve agility and movement competency. If you have a pet mobility/stability flow series, you can always sub that in here.

Primary: The main portion of this routine uses a fun training method that’s both highly efficient and effective. I was inspired by my recent conversation with Dennis Rackers to feature Every Minute on the Minute (EMOM’s) for this workout. You do 10 reps of the exercise at the top of the minute, then use the remainder of that minute to mill around and partially recover before hitting it again. Do 6 rounds of each exercise before moving on to the next. Select a weight that you can handle with good technique but that you find relatively challenging, such as a 12-RM resistance level. This will put you at an RPE around 8.5 given the short rests. These are expanded clusters or what is often referred to as hybrid power training. We keep the work segments (reps) within about 15 or so seconds (moving explosively) and thus mostly use the alactic system for force generation. The lactic system is working, but not too deeply (which helps to make the total workload tolerable). The short recoveries challenge the aerobic system in a power-developing (VO2max) manner. Looks easy on paper (or the screen). Here are some pointers for the movements.

  • The Sandbag Thruster uses a full front squat that finishes with an overhead press. Use an underhand or cupping hold on the sandbag under the chin. Descent into a full front squat, trying to stay fairly vertical and minimize hinging. You can use a ramp or board under heels if needed to facilitate this. Explode up out of the hole and smoothly transition into the overhead press for the finish. Try to move like a piston, although you will descend slightly slower than you ascend.
  • The Sandbag Clean/High Pull uses the handles on the side/top of your sandbag. With the bag resting on the ground just in front of your toes, grasp the handles and clean the load up powerfully until it approaches waist level. Then, instead of dipping under the bag to catch it, simply keep pulling until it reaches face height. Ride the bag down in a controlled manner and use a “tap and go” technique, hitting the ground and rebounding like a BEAST.
  • Dumbbell Walking Lunges are performed with DB’s at your sides and using fairly long and deep strides. Chest up…eyes forward. Count each step as one, so you get 5 reps on each side as you ambulate in that reciprocal pattern.
  • The Transverse Cable Row can also be done with an elastic band or tubing. Use an anchor point that is head level so you can work in a downward diagonal direction. Stand quartered (partially sideways, not squared up) to the anchor. Grasp the handle(s) and pull toward you as you flex and rotate. Finish with a slight press and extension and return under control. Do rounds 1-3-5 on your left side and rounds 2-4-6 on your right.

Accessory: As if all those movements didn’t challenge you enough, the accessory section requires you to use a 1:1 work rest ratio with the classic extensive plyometric…jumping rope. While this isn’t true speed training, it definitely helps you to maintain that essential elasticity. If you don’t have a jump rope or you are not too proficient with the technique, just use an “invisible” jump rope and mimic the technique. This is a very “staccato” rhythm. Finish out on your bike (or rower, etc.) with a 10 minute spin/cruise. If you are feeling gassed from all the work, just use it as a cooldown. But if your P and V factor is high, go ahead and hammer. Stretch out as needed with your faves for just a couple minutes and hit the shower.

That’s a fairly zesty workout but it checks a lot of boxes in a short time frame. Keep in mind it’s a blended workout. If we were going for absolute strength, we’d lift heavy with very long rests. For hypertrophy, we’d get a pump for volume. For sports-specific cycling power (just one example), we’d do intervals on the bike. We are touching on a lot of energy systems, movement patterns, and athletic capacities in a condensed manner. It’s fun to run through these types of sessions and they can keep you tuned up for several months when applied correctly. Once or twice a week is plenty.

The final thing we should discuss is recovery. Maintenance training isn’t supposed to break you down. It’s intended to allow you to preserve your fitness between the more significant outings and events in your season. Always err on the side of conservatism if you are feeling a little tired. You can cut back on intensity and volume in both of the workouts by doing just a little less, a little less hard. Listen to your body and use your instinctive wisdom or innate intelligence.

I also don’t like to advocate for very many “zero” days in which you do no training or activity. Get into the habit of keeping up with your general daily activity and/or grabbing a little light recovery based exercise such as Zone 1 cardio and light mobility/resistance training. Just enough to keep the circulation going and the joints and muscles well-lubricated. The BEAST must be durable, versatile, robust, and vital. Training serves your needs, you are not a slave to it.

Also, sleep is the great changemaker or gamechanger in recovery and readiness. Especially for hunters, who often compromise sleep a bit during the season. Many of the animals we hunt are crepuscular, or most active at dawn and dusk. We humans are diurnal, in that our circadian clocks are a little more day-based. Chronically rising early and shaving off a little rest can be a fatigue generator for hunters, alpinists, and others. Do your best to catch up on sleep in between your trips.

So there’s a perspective on maintenance training for the backcountry athlete. I appreciate you for joining me in this discussion. Good luck with your seasons and trips, and if you want to work with me on your programming…you know where to find me. Cheers!

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